Poetic Polyphony in Scott Thurston’s Internal Rhyme

Shearsman Books, 2010

          In a previous post on musicality in poetry, I discussed the translation of simultaneity in music into a comparable literary expression. By simultaneity in music I mean polyphony, the vertical dimension of notes on the staff: the notes in a chord sound simultaneously as do the voices in a fugue. In literature, polyphony can be suggested by the simultaneity of thoughts, dialogue, or action by characters, as in the eight voices of the fugue in Joyce’s Ulysses.
          Scott Thurston’s Internal Rhyme beautifully translates the melodic and harmonic dimensions of music into poetry. The spatial division of each poem into quadrants allows both a horizontal (melodic) and a vertical (harmonic) reading of the lines. The vertical resonates with the horizontal, and the dialogue between melody and harmony opens up the semantic field. To use another musical analogy, what emerges from this dialogue is harmonic overtones, the acoustic phenomenon that enriches the experience of music.
          Because the most startling aspect of this collection is its formal innovation, I’d like to focus on possible strategies for the reader. Here’s an example from Internal Rhyme:

                    what I give myself to            haunted by surface
                    a polished shine                    or cloudy patina
                    it takes art to maintain         a perpetual crisis
                    taking everything                  you have

                    I want to give                        my heart out
                    to your ideal world                in its tension
                    I have to wait                        for the memory
                    for the poem                          to make it right

          At first blush, the possibilities presented by the quadrants seemed to me a kind of combinatorics, a conceptual experiment that reminded me a little of Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes, a series of ten sonnets whose interchangeable lines offer to the reader an almost inexhaustible series of permutations—to be mathematically precise, one hundred trillion sonnets can be generated from the conceptual machine of the ten original sonnets. Queneau’s Oulipian experiment stretches the limits of the readability of the set of ten sonnets in all of their permutations—an impossibly large number sonnets for the mortal reader to consume.
          In the case of Thurston’s quadrants, three obvious possibilities occurred to me: line-by-line (horizontally), left column-right column (vertically), and four vertical columns (left, right, left, right). But there was something disasatisfying about treating each of these readings equally, so I needed to find a more natural way to integrate the horizontal with the vertical. It occurred to me that treating the page as a musical score gave me a more rewarding entry into the intricacies suggested by the quadrants. In other words, I read the poem as horizontal (melodic) lines and allow my peripheral vision, so to speak, to note vertical (harmonic) configurations of three or four lines that enrich the reading, perhaps turning the poem on itself or opening up other semantic possibilities.
          First, my conscious mind gravitates toward a traditional line-by-line reading—partly from habit and partly because the syntactical flow of the poems in Internal Rhyme is most apparent that way. For example, in the above poem, although there’s no punctuation, my mind readily creates syntactical clusters and sentences from a horizontal reading.
          Note also the division into two equal parts that such a reading suggests: “what I give myself to” opens the first stanza, and “I want to give” opens the second. Metapoetically, the poem juxtaposes the poet’s experience and perception (what he gives himself to) with his translation of that experience into poetry (his desire to give himself over to the tension in the ideal world of the poem: the “perpetual crisis” that poetry sustains). The last two lines constitute the poem’s volta, in this case the condition upon which that translation into poetry is contingent: waiting for his memory of tension within his own experience.
          But the spatial division of the poem into quadrants compels me to notice the vertical possibilities as well. In the above poem, for example, a horizontal reading yields

              I have to wait / for the memory / for the poem / to make it right

whereas a vertical reading might yield

              I have to wait / for the poem / for the memory / to make it right

          Thus waiting for the memory of tension (in the previous reading) is aligned with waiting for the poem to emerge for the memory to “make it right.” The boundaries between experience, memory and poetic creation are thus nicely blurred into a riddle: is it unresolved memory that drives the poem into creation, or the poem’s creation that illuminates cognitive mysteries?
          Such an overlay of readings expands the poem exponentially as the mind picks up, consciously or subconsciously, variations in the configurations of lines. Reading the poems in this way allows me to blend the melodic and the harmonic dimensions to create a kind of polyphonic experience. To return to a musical analogy, the intricate texture of this overlay is like the harmonic overtones that enrich the experience of music.
          The analogies between music and poetry are ancient, and the innovative musicality of Internal Rhyme offers a richly legible and resonant kind of poetic polyphony.

* * *

From the Shearsman Books website:
Scott Thurston lectures at the University of Salford where he runs a Masters in Innovative and Experimental Creative Writing. He co-runs The Other Room reading series in Manchester, edits The Radiator, a little magazine of poetics, and co-edits The Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry with Robert Sheppard. He has published three collections with Shearsman.

Camille Martin

4 responses to “Poetic Polyphony in Scott Thurston’s Internal Rhyme

  1. I was very interested in your ideas regarding Scott Thurston’s Internal Rhyme. I was working on similar notions (I hate to say how many years ago) when I was writing what I called “Church Street” poems. They were poems that ran both horizontally and vertically down the page. My idea was based on your notion of simultaneity, but not out of a musical background. I tried to ‘paint the page’ that is I created images that, though they had a temporal ending, also had a sense of endlessness. They played off each other. They happened at the same time. The poem was circular rather than directional. (That’s way too vague.) The painting by Memling (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scenes_from_the_Passion_of_Christ) is more instructive. Here is depicted all the events of the day of the Crucifixion of Christ at one time. Simultaneity. This is where I first got my idea for simultaneity as you define it. (I think I may have gotten the idea after looking at work by Brueghel. [http://blog.moonshadowecommerce.com/WEBLOG-NAME/Thing-Finder/2008/07/]) There is a problem. I remember that when my book, ‘murder’ was published, I had trouble doing readings. Its because I was confined by this sense of simultaneity. My first idea was to have several people on the stage playing different parts in the poem, reading different parts. But as I thought about it, I realized that, unlike music, language spoken like this sounds like you’re at the market place. You cannot distinguish the poem from noise. (The one person who has done this effectively is Orson Welles, in several of his movies where several people’s voices overlap each other.) So I was stuck with reading the poem in a certain order which kind of defeated the purpose of writing it the way I did. The only way the voices could sound out, and not eliminate each other, was in the reader’s imagination. The poems would remain visual.

    (PS. As an aside I feel like I’ve written this before. Must be old age.)


  2. Hi, David, thanks for this generous response. I like your examples of simultaneity in painting and film. These analogies among the arts are compelling even if – or more likely, I think, *because* – they aren’t literal or precise.

    PS If you repeat yourself, at least you remember that you do! 😉


  3. Dear David

    Thanks for your remarks on Camille’s thoughtful post. I can confirm that I have experienced the same difficulties in performing my poem! The clearest attempt to evoke the simultaneity of the readings was to prepare a recording of myself reading a given poem in one direction, and then, in a live setting, I performed the same poem in the opposite direction whilt the recording was playing. The effect wasn’t entirely satisfactory, so I have resorted to reading the different directions one after the other, or in short batches of say 5 in one way, then going back and doing them the other way! One unexpected effect of this was a audience member telling me how he got fascinated by watching out for how certain words that had caught his attention on the first hearing would appear in the second hearing.
    I agree that the poems are most likely to retain the greatest mobility in the reader’s hearing eye, and yet I might still attempt readings that might be a bit riskier in ranging over the lines – as Camille reads above – and see what happens! Thanks for the opportunity to give these issues further thought!

    Best wishes


  4. Note from Camille: Harry’s comment below got placed under the wrong post (the placement of the “comments” icon is a little confusing) so I’m pasting it here:

    Harry Gilonis says:
    October 12, 2010 at 6:20 am (Edit)

    Delighted to see discussion of my friend Scott Thurston’s polyphony, and wanted to complicate matters further by pointing you towards the Scots poet Rob MacKenzie’s first books (“Kirk Interiors” from Ankle Press, and “The Tune Kilmarnock” from Form Books; both o/p, alas). Here’s my favourite poem of Rob MacKenzie’s [the poem’s title *follows the poem]:

    – – – – – –

    ’Se jazz a’ bhaile bh’ann an’ the old rebellion began
    snug i’ the cusp ‘tween Union Jack thalla’s cac

    Cold War chaos an’ the ceilidh two fingers to NATO, the cuiream
    Jahweh brickbat ballets agus pompous American Rock

    on the Castle’s appropriate lawn just three chopped chords an’
    the sad day gone we left the croft unavoidable lilt le clachan ur

    Lewis Punk bands of the early 1980s

    > http://www.soton.ac.uk/~bepc/poems/mackenzie_1.htm

    – – – – – –

    Gaelic glosses:

    agus = and

    cuiream = born-again Christianity

    le clachan ur = with new stones (Gaelic, like English, puns on ‘balls’)

    ‘Se jazz a’bhaile bh’ann = it was township jazz

    thalla’s cac = go shit

    The poem can be read as a matrix of possibilities, the reader controlling the arrival of fresh linguistic input (I hesitate to say ‘information’).

    Rob was raised on Lewis, the ear-shaped island in the Hebrides to the NW of Scotland. They speak Received-Pronunciation English on formal occasions, Lallans-inflected Scots ‘English’ informally [as “i'” for “in”, “an'” for “and”, above]; many, but not all, also speak (Scots) Gaelic. Rob mixes all three languages in his poem, as well as allowing for switching directions!

    The ‘Castle’ (a nineteenth-century fake in a landscaped park made by a rich businessman with aristocratic pretensions) is on the outskirts of the largest town on Lewis, Stornoway; it was is – the site for rock gigs. Punk arrived late on Lewis, but with some force; “Union Jack, thalla’s cac” is a line from “Union Jack” by a band called “The Rong”, you can hear it at

    > http://www.myspace.com/saddayweleftthecroft

    A croft is a detached cottage with agricultural land around it, historically lived in by the poor; “Sad Day We Left The Croft” was a 1981 compilation album of punk bands from Lewis, re-released in 2007 by Honcho. (A lot of it still rocks!)

    If you want to know more about Rob MacKenzie, there’s a selected poems called “Off Ardglas” from Invisible Books in the UK; and you can find my (now rather elderly) introduction to a reading he gave in London at

    Harry Gilonis


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